Out on the Reef
DURING a portion of the war the head-quarters of our regiment, the Second United States Colored Infantry, were at Key West, Florida. The post is an exceedingly important one, and the southernmost point over which the flag of the Union flies. From the piazza of the Light-House Barracks, the highest position on the island, there is a noble view of the ocean, the great Gulf Stream — bearing on its bosom the exhaustless commerce of the Gulf— sweeping by almost at the beholder’s feet. There, all the sunny days, maybe seen a silent procession of great ships, slowly and gravely passing, seemingly hung in mid air, so blue and clear is the water. Pleasant as is the view from the land to the voyager who was, perhaps, shivering at New York in midwinter, less than five days before, the sight of the tropical palms and golden orange-trees as he enters the sunny harbor is even more captivating.
Comfortably quartered were we at Fort Taylor and at various barracks on the island, and vigorously did we drill during the spring of our arrival in 1864. At that time we hardly knew what we could do ourselves ; and the islanders, to whom the appearance in line of battle of nine hundred black men with shining muskets, brass buttons, and white gloves, was a novel, if not an unconstitutional sight, had not the dimmest idea. The people of Key West, one of the largest communities in Florida, and having a fair share of fashionable slaveholding society, unlike the inhabitants of the rest of the State, were loyal. Fort Taylor is located at Key West, and its guns command the town. At the outbreak of the war the Crusader lay off the harbor. So, as I said, they were loyal. In few places was the error of secession more plainly seen. Nevertheless, as a people they are not preeminently distinguished for intellectual activity. Were the place to be destroyed by a tornado, as has once or twice been threatened, the arts would not be lost. Even metaphorically there would not be “ an eye plucked out of Greece.”It has, however, its advantages. It would still be as eligible a place to be wrecked upon as any in the Gulf, and its inhabitants would generously restore to the shipwrecked as large a proportion of their own property as any engaged in similar occupations,—and more. They are not prompt in receiving impressions ; especially are they not in advance of the age in regard to antislavery. Their principal street is not called Wilberforce, nor is their chief hotel the Clarkson House. It is even questionable whether an institution so little radical as Sir T. Fowell Buxton’s brewery would ever have been tolerated there. After we had been quietly ensconced in the fort and barracks and parading their streets several months, the idea occurred to a number of the more intelligent, that the island was actually garrisoned by colored troops. The rumor spread, and ultimately gained a general credence. It was, I think, the shop-keepers who discovered it first. Trade is sharp-sighted. No portion of the obnoxious hue of the colored soldier’s skin was found by experience to adhere to his greenbacks. We never became the rage, however, officers or men. There, as elsewhere, the courteous received us civilly. We lived under the cold shadow of the displeasure of others, which in a hot climate was not very uncomfortable, after all.
Then followed the summer of 1864, in which the yellow fever, mercifully stayed from New Orleans, raged at Key West. The kindness and attention we then received were not confined to the technically loyal. Very few of the unacclimated escaped the disease ; and, from the commanding general down, the loss of life was lamentable. In our own regiment, among the men, (though they were originally from Virginia and Maryland,) the disease was comparatively harmless ; but, of all the officers of the regiment who were stationed there, we lost over one half. Beginning with our noble colonel, — I have n't the heart to recall the list,—we buried them one after another with the honors of war ; and finally, between deaths and the furloughs of the convalescent, we had hardly enough remaining to follow our honored comrades to a soldier’s grave. Educated and true-hearted gentlemen were they for the most part. If noble devotion, even unto death, in a just cause, be chivalric, then these generous youths, even in dying, have won their spurs.
And their good swords are rust;
Their souls are with the saints, we trust.”
It was during this terrible season, when ships refused to stop, —when dayafter day we could see them passing, yet almost unwilling to receive the mails from the little pilot-boat that plied in and out the harbor, — when even the ships of war, whose usual station was close to the island, lay off at Sand Key Light grim and silent, but clustered together as if for sympathy while keeping watch over us as over condemned criminals, — that several of the officers of the garrison, in hope of relief and change from the sad monotony, concluded to pass a few days upon the reef in hunting and fishing. We kept up stout hearts and whatever of cheerfulness we could. The requisite arrangements having been made the day before, we assembled at the Cove at early daybreak, and found our pretty little schooner with everything apparently in readiness.
The great Florida reef stretches round the southern extremity of the peninsula, from the vicinity of Key Biscayne to the Dry Tortugas, a distance of about one hundred and fifty miles. It is of varying breadth, from twenty to thirty miles in many parts, and throughout the greater portion of its extent the water is very shallow, the reef frequently coming to the surface and forming small islands, or keys, as they are commonly called. Nearly all these keys are uninhabitable from lack of fresh water, though they are usually covered with luxuriant vegetation very attractive to the eye. This great reef, together with the peninsula, of which it seems to form the outlying guard, is the work of coral zoöphytes which for ages have here multiplied and died. They are of many different kinds, adapted to the part they have to perform in reef-building; and as they approach the surface of the water their work becomes of a lighter and more fantastic form, beautifully imitating and rivalling various kinds of vegetation. These charming groves are filled with many rare and curious forms of animal life. We eagerly looked forward to a trip over the quiet waters, which promised so much of novel and fascinating interest. Our crew, consisting of but one man, might at first sight have appeared rather disproportioned to the officers ; but William, a private of Company A, was a thorough sailor and a host in himself.
“Shove off! ” said the Doctor, — who by virtue of a cheerful, confident disposition, and of knowing least about the management of a boat, naturally assumed command, — and off we went, heading for a little key a few miles distant, where we hoped to obtain crawfish for bait.
It was a delightful morning, the air fresh and cool, and the water of that peculiar pale green tinge which it has on the coral beds, — so clear that its depth to the eye is lessened amazingly. The boat was well-found, except that we bad no anchor; a heavy round shot thrust into a pillow-case was all that ingenuity suggested when the lack at the last moment was discovered. Though it was ludicrously inadequate as an anchor, yet the Confident and cheerful tone of the Doctor, who with brisk alacrity pronounced it all-sufficient, seemed somehow to give it several hundred pounds of additional weight, and William, who wished for a better substitute, was promptly overruled. Now the Doctor, besides being a very skilful surgeon and most genial companion. was learned, at least theoretically, in ships. He knew all about tri-remes and quadri-remes, and could locate the aphlaston in ancient, or Samson’s-post in modern vessels. Snows, pinks, and caracks, galleons and gallivats, were all familiar to him. His library contained Cooper and Marryat, and he had read Torn Cringle’s Log,” and “ Sindbad the Sailor”; and though he lived in a Mediterranean State, where no ships ever come except of the sort which “touched upon the deserts of Bohemia,"— built by the poets, and lightly freighted with their fancies,—yet he had made a voyage from New York to New Orleans, and from New Orleans to Key West, upon each of which occasions he would doubtless have taken the management of the vessel into his own hands, had not an untimely seasickness, by confining him to his stateroom, seemed tq limit his usefulness in this regard.
No such obstacle now presented itself. His orders, which had a genuine saltwater flavor about them, were generally understood by William, and executed with as much of literal exactness as the nature of the case would allow ; causing us thereby to present so singular an appearance, that we attracted attention on a neighboring man-of-war, and even caused an officer to ascend a few ratlines for a better look with a glass. This act the Doctor attributed to watchfulness that no contraband traffic should go on in the harbor, and predicted that, as soon as the glass revealed the uniforms of United States officers, there would be no trouble. He was justified by the event; the glass was soon shut, and the man descended. This settled the Doctor’s supremacy in the boat. The Major, once or twice disturbed by an occasional incoming wave, in a nap which at that hour of the day he had absurdly undertaken to woo, seemed to accept the accident as one of the inevitable discomforts of the sea, and no longer seconded by any mark of approbation my mild suggestions to the Doctor. Thenceforth my only allies were the big round eyes of William, protruding abnormally from their sockets.
We soon reached the key for which we were bound, and William, with grains in hand, announced himself ready to spear any crawfish which might appear. “ Crawfish ? ” said the Doctor, with an incredulous smile, and that inflexion of voice which would be represented on paper by half a dozen marks of interrogation. “ Impossible ! Water particularly salt and briny,” said he, tasting it, “due to excessive evaporation. There are no crawfish here. Crawfish, more elegantly crayfish, are of the macrourous Crustacea, belong to the genus astacus, and are found in fresh-water streams. Among other peculiarities — ” At that moment William, having struck a particularly fine crawfish, drew him quickly into the boat, and called loudly to the Doctor to free the grains, as he saw another. With distinguished good sense, the Doctor immediately complied, though it involved a sudden “solution of continuity” in his remarks, and joined cheerfully in the roar which followed at his expense. Even William’s eyes glistened, though life on a Virginia plantation had taught him better than to laugh in the face of his betters. He went on, however, spearing right and left, while the Doctor recommenced the discussion of the subject, vehemently sustaining his own opinion with words of sesquipedalian length, which he pronounced with a surprising fluency ; and then, to our surprise, produced an opportune copy of Webster’s Dictionary, which sustained him to the letter. Then arose a hot discussion as to whether Webster’s Dictionary or the Florida fishermen were the better authority upon crawfish, and the Doctor, rising from his place to emphasize some of his conclusions, I slipped into it, and thus, taking charge of the tiller, usurped command of the boat.
With a brisk wind in our quarter, we flew along over the reef, the little vessel gracefully riding the waves, which, far and near, were crested with foam. and from which the wind every now and then blew the spray merrily into our faces. For several successive hours we ran thus, following the sinuosities of the channel, or boldly striking across the open reef when the depth of water permitted, and frequently coming in sight of wooded islets or sandy keys variously scattered on our right and left. About noon we saw a large key, whose luxuriant foliage rose sharply defined against the sky, and towards which the white-capped waves were chasing each other tumultuously. Running almost before the wind as we rapidly approached it, we looked in vain for any appearance of land. What had before appeared as a dense and continuous wood opened into islets of mangroves growing immediately out of the water, the island itself being everywhere pierced and veined by the sea. Then, as we entered its sylvan gates, which opened to receive us, appeared a charming scene, and one rarely to be enjoyed elsewhere. Hardly a vestige of land was to be seen, while, as we advanced, wooded avenues, arched and festooned, opened on either hand, into which the fresh sea rolled, dying gradually in gentle undulations, while far in their recesses could be seen smooth and quiet water, dark with overhanging shadows. Through the principal highways of this singular place — the Venice of the woods — rolled tranquil bankless rivers, on which we were steadily borne by the tide, though the wind was almost entirely shut out. Though silent, this sylvan city was full of life from basement to airy chamber and leafy dome. For a long time, I leaned over the boat and watched the inhabitants as we slowly moved along. Fish were passing and repassing as though intent on affairs or pleasure. Are there no social distinctions beneath the waters? I thought I could distinguish the sharp and eager, the bedizened fop, and the quiet father of a family, who, though soaked in water, evidently felt as comfortable as Clarence in his butt of Malmsey. Round the root of an old tree, the hereditary possession, perhaps, of father and son, were gathered a knot of the well-to-do; while occasionally there darted out from obscurity one as if solicitous of custom or eager for news. Political processions were out, and excitement evidently ran high. Troops of supporters followed their favorite leaders ; while, balanced in the water, a little aloof from the crowd, was a meditative fellow, perhaps a politician by trade, his fins moving uneasily to and fro, an eager observer of the contest, but hardly decided on which side to range himself.
While this animated scene appeared below, our boat, a creature of both elements, was passing through squares and streets and avenues, awaking no small commotion among the inhabitants of the groves. As I said, no land was visible on the surface ; the trees grew directly out of the water. Like the banian-tree, the mangrove throws down shoots from its branches, which take root beneath the shallow water of the reef, and thus aid essentially in its growth. Here and there in the interior of some of the thickest clumps of this water-logged town, where the land rose a few inches from the surface, stood larger trees, lifting themselves above their companions, and on some dead limb, the watch-tower of the feathered inhabitants, whether for foes without or food within, was gathered a heterogeneous company of cranes, pelicans, and all long-legged and web-footed fowls. There they sat in solemn silence, until alarmed by our approach, or by a chance shot that brought down one of their number, when with an air of startled dignity they would fly uneasily away. Several which we shot we were unable to secure, owing to the density of the undergrowth and the want of footing; their leafy fortresses being a perfect protection from the dishonor of capture, if not from the peril of sudden death. Occasionally one of the birds would come sweeping round the curve, following the course of the watery way in search of fish, until, seeing us, it would rise reluctantly, and take itself off. Meanwhile, we stood in the bow of the boat and on either side, and as the game flew, we shot right and left, frequently bringing down our birds and oftener missing them, as their startled and unexpected rush disturbed the aim. At times, swept steadily onward by the tide, we would turn a bend, and come unexpectedly upon a Central Park of the city, the lazy and dignified inhabitants of which disdained to move until the noise of the guns, breaking the stillness and reverberating from side to side in unaccustomed sounds, frightened them away in respectable alarm.
Such hunting is glorious. No skulking nor hiding, decoys nor ambuscades. No elaborate drives of the game, in which an army of dependants does the work and the languid fowler lazily reaps the benefit, — a species of royal road to hunting in which the flavor of L. s. d. must be far too apparent in the game for most republican tastes ; but a fresh and novel plunge at once into the mysterious heart of Nature and her longkept preserves, unvisited and undisturbed save by here and there her special favorites.
Not infrequently a young crane, already prominent by reason of its white plumage contrasting with the gray branches and shallow nest of sticks in which it stood, would squawk discordant notes of stupid alarm, as if especially anxious to court capture, and would sit or stand upon the nest until taken off by hand, striking with its long bill as we approached. The cranes are good eating, and afford each several pounds of excellent meat, despite their famished appearance. The young pelicans, however, though similarly situated. and if possible more discordant, we did not disturb : they are too filthy to be eaten. So exhilarating and full of attraction was cur sport, that time slipped away unheeded; and it was not until the lengthening shadows had settled darkly on the secluded and watery pathways, that we emerged into the daylight, and found the sun still shining, though within an hour of setting. Since daybreak we had eaten nothing but a little hard-tack, nor had felt the need of food in our unusual excitement. We had birds enough for a party of many times our number, even with appetites as sharp as our own. No land offering on which to camp in all the expanse of the submerged island we had left, we bore away for a sandy and wooded point a few miles distant, where a white beach, dimly glistening in the feeble rays of the declining sun, promised us a resting-place.
Though the waves tumbled in on the beach with considerable force, we ran head on, and were landed dry-shod on the shoulders of the faithful William. A fire was soon kindled, and coffee boiling, and a most odoriferous and savory steam began to rise from the bird -furloo, — a compound of various appetizing ingredients well known upon the reef, which made our previously sharp appetites still more impatient. One of the party going down to the boat, which lay at some little distance in the surf, in search of seasoning or condiment which had been left, a low shout and a heavy splash soon announced that he had managed to fall clumsily into the water. He was soon fished out, however, with little damage, and joined at first so obstreperously in the laugh, that his merriment was at once perceived to be forced. Finding at length that his little artifice was detected, the shivering wretch began to grow rapidly angry at what appeared to him the prolonged and unseasonable mirth of the party; his broad visage subsided into a faint watery smile, preparatory to coming wrath, when suddenly a sense of his ridiculous position dawning upon him, he burst into a hearty laugh of unmistakable sincerity.
The coffee was soon served, and was found potulent; the furloo was unsurpassed ; the drenched member of the party was luxuriously placed in the thickest smoke of the fire, and good feeling prevailed. The joke well sent and well received enlivened the meal. Let me add, however, dear reader, that, unless you are constitutionally goodnatured, you had best not fall overboard on an empty stomach. While your mouth is full of salt water, and your hair of sand, while your back aches and discomfited dignity cries aloud, the tendency to mirth is not irresistible. I regret to be obliged to speak from personal knowledge.
The place of our encampment was an island like the rest, though the land was higher, and in some places rose into very respectable little ridges or hillocks crowned with various trees; and, what was very remarkable, though we searched it over in the morning for fresh water, and could not find a drop nor the signs of any, yet there was a great multitude of raccoons, and perhaps other small animals, stepping lightly about us all night. One of the former was knocked over by the Major, who, noticing William’s eyes eagerly fixed upon it, gave it to him. He received it with pleasure, and roasted it with some eagerness, but I noticed that he ate little, in spite of his long fast and hard work, and that he soon retired, wrapping himself in his blanket. What thoughts of a faroff Virginia cabin, of wife and dusky offspring waiting there with the sublime patience of their race for the “ Coming of the Kingdom ” and for the return of the husband and father, may have been excited in the honest fellow by the unexpected sight of this animal so familiar in the Virginia woods, I know not; yet, waking long after we had been asleep, I heard William’s voice, indistinct yet plaintive, coming from the depths of his blanket, and I knew that he was at prayer. A faithful soldier he was, and stout-hearted as the immortal Cæsar, as events subsequently proved. I had enlisted him at Norfolk, and since then he had attached himself constantly to me.
No rattling reveille awoke us. Lying on my back, while our early breakfast was preparing, I watched the first gray coming of the dawn, and the fading of the quiet stars so near to us all night, and then the empurpled clouds, radiant with promise of the day. We rose refreshed, and breakfasted like men. Our boat had been stranded in the night, and the incoming tide had not yet reached it. So we walked for half an hour on the beach, and found it covered with tracks of animals which all night long had visited it in search of food ; now that day had come, flocks of birds—snipe, curlew, and the like, diminished but faithful copies all of their long-legged cousins of the day before — thronged the shore, bobbing up and down in the sunlight, in the most animated manner. The Major, who was the life and soul of the party as a sportsman, had here the opportunity to gratify another of his passions in gathering sea-mosses, or algœ, of which he already had a splendid collection. In the warm waters of the Gulf these mosses appear in brighter and gayer colors than their more sober kindred of the North. So delicate and lovely in form and color are they, that, when carefully arranged and pressed, it is impossible to distinguish them from the most exquisite productions of the pencil, and one wonders by what subtile alchemy the sun’s rays painted their vivid hues in the dark cold bosom of the ocean.
The tide being up, we at length embarked, and were borne rapidly on the flood towards our favorite fishing-ground. Here, as elsewhere on many parts of the reef, the water was dotted at the distance of a few miles in various directions with little emerald islands compact of dark green foliage, and offering a striking contrast to the water, out of which they abruptly rose. Occasionally they formed a longarm or semicircle, in which perchance would be seen the white sails of a sponger from Key West. The business of sponging is carried on by a peculiar class of the population called “Conchs,” originally from the Bahamas, and said by some to be the descendants of North Carolina or other Tories, who fled to British protection during the Revolutionary War. They are very ignorant, have manners and customs peculiar to themselves, and reside in a distinct part of the island. They were formerly much looked down upon by the more wealthy ; but, as they have not a few good traits, the prejudice against them is sensibly dying out. The arrival of a colored regiment at Key West, by giving the good people a more immediate object of disgust, helped the Conchs measurably in this regard ; though I am sorry to say they did not appear to appreciate it. During the war they were rebel almost to a man, though few of them did sanguinary deeds in arms. They preferred sponging, which is more profitable ; and fishing, which is safer. While active hostilities lasted, they were forbidden to frequent the coast of the main-land, but at the close of the war they reaped large profits from the accumulations of previous years. The shallow waters of the reef everywhere reveal sponges at the bottom, and they are thrown upon all the beaches ; but the finer qualities are not readily obtained. These Conchs do not like to be followed when gathering sponges, and will desert a neighborhood that is too much frequented.
On leaving the place of our last night’s encampment, the Doctor had, as a matter of course, again assumed the command, and whether his wild steering gave the impression that we were going to run down to them, or from general shyness, one or two spongers which had been in sight about half an hour gradually edged away, and soon disappeared behind the intervening islands.
While running through the channels with which the reef is seamed, we would troll for fish ; cutting our bait from the rind of pork in rude imitation of a small fish, and so fastening it on the hook as to cause the line to turn in the direction of the twist. Without this precaution the strongest lines would soon be ruined. The sport was excellent. Every few minutes the loop which is left in the line to show when a fish bites would be suddenly and violently drawn out, and a vigorous pull by the hand would discover a clean active fish shooting through the water at a great rate, generally on the surface or just below it, and at as large an angle with the course of the boat as the line would allow, darting hither and thither in its vigorous efforts to escape. Commonly it would prove to be a Spanish mackerel, jackfish, or kingfish, — all splendid fish, vigorous, muscular, and symmetrical, for none other could catch the bait, which fairly flies along the surface of the water. As soon as caught, the fish were transferred to the well, with which our own, in common with most of the Key West boats, was provided. However good for the huntsman the wilds of Florida may be, its waters are the paradise of the fisherman, for they are fairly alive with the most choice and beautiful of the finny tribe. Very many of the Northern kinds are here found, and others not inferior. Finer fish than those caught in the Gulf I have seldom seen. Their number and variety are incredible. From the largest and most misshapen monsters that roam the deep down to the tiniest and most delicate creations, these favored waters are prolific in them. On many parts of the coast they will jump into a boat in large quantities if a light be displayed at night; and, with a seine, a daily supply for an army corps could be secured at the mouth of the Calloosichatchee, where a part of our regiment was stationed.
In crossing the reef, where the water is in many places so clear that the bottom is seen with almost microscopic distinctness, the voracious barracuda, the rakish gar, and many other strange varieties, attract attention ; while occasionally a huge turtle may be seen asleep on the water, and looking at a little distance like a projecting rock. In the “ coral grove ” of Florida, however,
only in the imagination of the poet, if at all. One kind, an immense flat fish, has a remarkable projection or elongation of the spine, making a flexible appendage several feet in length, which is commonly supposed to be armed with a sting, and is capable of being thrown about in manner not a little suggestive to the cautious. The fish is commonly called a stingeree, but doubtless its proper name is sting-ray.
As we shot out from the open water of the reef, and ran behind the islands cosily locking in a sunny little bay, whose smooth white sandy bottom was carpeted here and there with patches of green, spreading corals, and fanlike sponges, two of these huge fish, seemingly side by side, and almost stationary as they lay near the bottom, like patches of vegetation, appeared almost under our bows, yet a little too far to be reached with the grains, in the hands of the over-ready and expectant William. They did not move, however, as we passed, and with unanimous consent the beat was put about. Our headway had carried us some distance, and when, under the management of the Doctor, the boat was at length turned the other way, they were no longer in sight; but they soon reappeared, in nearly their old position. As we rapidly neared them, William stood up in the bow with the grains poised in his stalwart hand, when suddenly something darkened for an instant the space between me and the sun, and an enormous shark was seen playing backward and forward in the clear water but a few rods from the boat, with such inconceivable rapidity that it was not without difficulty that his motions were followed by the startled eye. He was fairly to be seen, however, his dorsal fin cutting the surface of the shallow water as he passed and repassed with almost the lightness and freedom of a shadow. At this moment William planted the grains firmly in the back of one of the sluggish monsters of which we were in pursuit, which immediately started off with great power ; a nervous motion of the helm caused a quick change in the direction of the boat, the line taughtened violently in William’s hands, and over he went on the side next the shark, which, with the rapidity of a flash, changed its direction, and darted towards the boat. No speed could avail, but our loud and vigorous cries startled the ferocious though cowardly monster, and when within about thirty feet, he sheered and passed, returning again upon his track immediately. William knew his danger, and rapidly drawing himself on board with the line which was fast to the boat, and which he fortunately held in his hands, he kicked and splashed lustily. In a moment the Major’s powerful grasp had him firmly by the collar, and he was hauled safely into the boat; while the shark, reluctant to lose his prey, again passed and repassed, nearer than before. Finally, balked, but not discouraged, it swept in cruel and rapid circles about us. It was all over in a minute or two, but exciting while it lasted. The ravenous thing seemed more like an incarnate fiend than a fish, it passed so rapidly, and yet so noiselessly, about us. While this was passing, the boiling water and constant plunges of the boat showed that the stingeree was making violent efforts to escape ; and during the excitement, the boat having broached to, a sudden jerk drew out the grains, and he was off. The shark hung about us for some time, but we finally lost sight of him in deep water. No fish is more common on the reef than the sharks, but they are generally not of the kind called man-eaters ; and though I have often seen them twelve and fourteen feet long, I have never known any person bitten by them. This one had doubtless followed us in from deep water, attracted by bits of pork or other refuse thrown overboard, and must, judging from his audacity, have been nearly famished.
In the channels and on the outer edges of the reef, which are everywhere abrupt, the fishing for quite large fish is excellent. Moored at length by the side of a little sandy key, we threw over our lines in water fifty or sixty feet deep, and many an active fish stoutly struggling to escape rewarded our exertions. Of strange and infrequent kinds were these, which seldom leave their gloomy caverns on any voluntary errand to the surface. Occasionally one would be brought up from the depths of the “sunless sea,”pulling and shooting violently about, only, as he saw the unwelcome light, to snap the hook and quickly disappear. Now and then a voracious pull, quiet but with almost the reserved force of a steam-engine, and a broken hook or line would testify to the existence of monsters below to which hooks and lines, however strong, were embarrassments scarcely felt.
Hours of exciting and active sport followed, until early in the afternoon, having secured as many fish as we could conveniently carry and preserve, and wearied with the labor, we drew in our lines.
We had passed in the morning a large key, higher than the others, from which with the glass smoke could be seen rising as if from habitations ; and it was decided to run down there and dine. An hour or two brought us to a strait or land-locked bay between two islands. Rocks protected the entrance, while, far up the bay — and a pleasant vista it was — could be seen a cottage and signs of cultivation. Not wishing to disturb the inmates by an inroad of hungry visitors, we landed, and, after due preparation, dined sumptuously on as excellent fish and game as ever tempted an epicure. The wind had died away outside, and where we were hardly a breath disturbed the atmosphere ; but though warm, it was not oppressive. The Major and the Doctor, having finished their post-prandial cigars, had, after a day of active and exciting sport, yielded to the drowsy influences of the hour. Stretched at full length in the comfortable shade, I watched the last blue whiffs of my own cigar, fragrant to the last, as they slowly rose in graceful curls on the still air until lost in the spreading branches of the evergreens above, and was preparing to follow the example of my comrades, when suddenly there came round the point, and heading up the bay, a light canoe, or kooner as it is called on the reef, hollowed from a single tree. As it swept rapidly and not ungracefully by, — was it vision or some yet finer sense which told me there was a young and pretty woman in it? Under her dexterous paddle the distance quickly increased between us when we were perceived, and she soon disappeared behind intervening trees. Just at this point, so suitable for an agreeable revery, and so inauspicious for violent noises, a “barbaric yawp,” which would have delighted the energetic author of “ Leaves of Grass,” forced itself upon my unwilling ear. I looked and beheld the Doctor, so lately stertorous and prone, upright, and in a state of violent physical agitation. He was dancing up and down on an old log in the most incomprehensible manner, shaking his hand, and ever and anon grinding something under his heel in the most energetic way imaginable. I ran hastily towards him, and perceived a kind of paste thinly spread out on the log ; this the Doctor assured me represented the body of a scorpion which a few minutes before was full of life and vigor; and he exhibited ruefully a wound in the hand which he had received, having probably rolled on the animal in his sleep. Such wounds, though painful, are seldom or never fatal, and if attended to in time are commonly not serious. Here William promptly came forward and plentifully covered the place with tobacco-juice, which acted as an excellent alexipharmic, perhaps as good as any the Doctor himself could apply, and the pain began to abate. As a further means of distracting the Doctor’s attention, I related what I had seen in the canoe with all the little embellishments which the truth would allow, and it was unanimously voted to know more of the matter.
The bay was a pleasant little cul-desac, densely wooded on the low shores, rising, however, into some little elevation a short distance from, the water. At the lower end, on a little knoll, a few acres were cleared, on which was a cottage shaded by a number of cocoanut-trees, ordinarily rare on the reef, and surrounded by various shrubs and plants of tropical or semi-tropical varieties, not a few of which seemed as much for ornament as use. At the landing lay the canoe which had recently passed us, and a larger boat with mast and sails, both of them in good order, and the canoe cushioned. A well-worn path, bordered with spreading cactuses, led from the landing to the cottage, of which the surroundings were neat and comfortable.
Almost on our arrival we were greeted by the proprietor—a well-looking man of somewhat past middle age — with a courtesy which we did not anticipate. He spoke English with a strong accent, as though a foreigner. The undress uniform which we wore did not seem unfamiliar to him, nor unpleasing. After acquainting him with our position, we were invited to the house, the principal room of which was comfortably and even neatly furnished. A pleasant perfume of flowers came in at the open window. A crucifix hung prominently on the wall, while opposite to it were a couple of Londonmade fowling-pieces,and in the corner a German yager, which we had an opportunity subsequently to examine. A considerable number of old-fashioned and substantially bound books were on shelves, while upon a dark, richly carved and ancient piece of furniture — something like a wooden escritoire, and much superior to the rest of the furniture — lay a handsomely inlaid guitar with a broken string.
Our host soon showed himself a wellinformed and dignified gentleman. A remark of the Major upon the foreign make of the guns brought out the fact that he had travelled extensively; and he was apparently familiar with several of the European capitals. He politely furnished us with tobacco and pipes, two of which were of meerschaum, dark with age and elaborately carved. He was evidently from the North of Europe; and from remarks he let drop in the course of a friendly, and to us interesting conversation, we learned that he was born a Protestant, but had become a Catholic from choice ; that he had formerly been in the service of some Northern power, — probably in the navy, tor he had visited many parts of the world, and had evidently lived a roving life, and one full of vicissitude. He seemed to have lived a number of years where he was, in almost complete solitude ; but he informed us that he should soon remove, and he evidently had little of the churlishness of most hermits. The books that we saw were largely devotional, or, at least, theological, in their character; and amongst others I noticed an old copy of the “ Centuries of Magdeburg” in good binding and preservation. They were mainly in French, some few in other languages, but rarely one in English. He informed us that game was not uncommon in the neighborhood, and fish were to be had everywhere. As he obligingly accompanied us to the boat, he made one or two inquiries as to the progress of the war, though apparently less from interest than as a matter of courtesy to us. On the way he pointed out two tame pelicans which he had taught to fish for him as he had seen these birds trained in China. In assisting us to shove off the boat, which had become stranded, he displayed a large, muscular arm, curiously marked and tattooed, — forming, perhaps, an illustrated history of his life, if it could be read.
No sooner were we afloat than speculation raged as to this mysterious stranger located in the wilderness. Everything probable from a pirate to a prince was discussed and rejected, though it was unanimously agreed that he was a very courteous gentleman. But upon the Lady of the Isle, whom none of us had seen, we could not so well harmonize. It was, however, finally settled by the majority, that she must be young and wondrously fair, the owner of the guitar which we had seen, and of course a charming performer on it. "Little Gretchen,” said one, “ shall have some new guitar-strings, and I ’ll send her one or two of my German songs. I don’t doubt she sings delightfully in German. Fact is, f mean to cultivate the old gentleman’s acquaintance.” “ Gretchen, indeed ! ” quoth another, fresh in whose mind were pleasant memories of the dark-haired daughters of a neighboring sunny clime; “why not call her Olga at once ? Do you take the girl for a Tartar ? Who ever heard of a lady playing the guitar under palmtrees with such a name as Gretchen ? It’s worse than an east-wind. Call her Juanita, or something soft and pretty. As for your Scandinavian, or even German gutturals, they are barbarously unfit for music. You can see that her father brought her here as much to have her out of the way of hearing such sounds as to get the chill out of his own blood. There’s no language north of the Rhine fit for either love or music. Where are all your pretty little diminutives, and soft and liquid endearments, that drop but of one’s mouth so naturally that they can't be helped? Give the lady her guitar-strings, but banish German, or even English.”
It was late in the evening before we encamped, as we had a long distance to run. A rather uncomfortable night upon a little sand key infested with unnumbered mosquitoes and other little torments, did not dispose ns to prolong our uneasy slumbers, and early the next morning we were again afloat.
A lovely sight soon rewarded us for our activity. Far in the distance could be perceived, in the early morning light, a noble structure crowned with battlements and towers, and looming grandly up, yet indistinct and dim in the little haze which yet rested on the water. No land whatever could be seen about it, and even where sky and water met could not be perceived ; and, when after a little while the sun came up, wreathing it in many-colored mists, it seemed like an enchanted castle springing from the waves, light and beautiful as a creation of fancy. From the walls, hardly unfolded in the light air which was stirring, soon floated, however, the flag of our country ; but it required some little time to realize that this stately structure, enclosing fourteen acres, and rising apparently from the water without human agency, was the celebrated military prison, the dreaded Dry Tortugas. Fort Jefferson stands on the principal of the little sandy keys which form the group of the Dry Tortugas, and covers the whole island. Two or three little sand-banks around it, with scarcely a tree or shrub, complete the group. It is a place of commanding importance in the event of war with a maritime power, and, in connection with Fort Taylor and two other forts or martello towers now building at Key West, it controls the priceless commerce of the Gulf. Its chief, and perhaps only, design is, I believe, to form a naval harbor or refuge for our ships of war during active hostilities. Its foundations are sunk deep in the coral bed, and in many places soon become covered by coralline deposits. Some interesting observations upon the growth of the reef have been made here. In common, with all the fortifications on the reef, there is not a brick nor a stone in its structure but has been brought from the North at great expense. Within the fort, sheltered by trees, is a pleasant parade-ground ; and the famous light-house, celebrated by Cooper, in which the pretty Rose and her gallant lover were so romantically united, just peeps over the top.
With the heat tempered by almost constant breezes from the ocean, with an abundance of fresh water condensed on the spot, and with the same food as the garrison, the several hundred prisoners confined in this healthful place during the war might have been in a worse position certainly.
At a little distance stands Loggerhead Light, one of trie finest lights with which the care of the general government has studded this most dangerous coast. The outer edges of trie reef are so steep that little warning is given on approach ; and the currents are so strange and varying, that navigation here is exceedingly deceptive and dangerous. Not all the wrecks, however, which have so plentifully strewn the reef, are trie result of accident. Many, it is believed, occurred through collusion. Of later years, owing to the employment of a better class of shipmasters, greater precautions by the insurance companies, — which have always an agent located at Key West,— and other causes, the number of wrecks has decreased ; yet in the autumn of 1865 a terrific tornado swept over the reef, wrecking many vessels, blowing down one of the towers at Fort Jefferson, overturning barracks at Key West, and doing much other damage, accompanied with loss of life. Some two million dollars’ worth of wrecked property saved from the fury of this one storm was said to have been brought into Key West alone.
The wind soon freshening, we made famous time all the morning. About noon we stopped for rest and refreshment, and enjoyed a glorious bath on a pretty white beach. The water of the Gulf makes a truly luxurious bath, not too cold for the feeblest constitution.
The beeches on the reef, though smooth and hard, contain not a particle of ordinary sand, but are entirely composed of broken corals and comminuted shells, and would doubtless burn into very tolerable lime. At Key West the common domestic fowls will not flourish for lack of their accustomed gravel.
While gathering algœ and other marine curiosities upon the beach, the indefatigable Major piled up a pyramid of conchs several feet high, with the intention of taking them into the boat; but, except two or three of unusually delicate and roseate colors, we concluded to leave them, having already as much weight as we could carry in our light-draught little schooner. They make a very palatable soup, and are excellent bait. The fishermen have a curious way of extracting the fish, by knocking off with a sharp blow the apex of the shell, to which he remains attached, and then twisting him out by following the convolutions of the shell.
The Major was more successful, however, when, having discovered fresh deer-tracks, he proposed that we should hunt a little. Near us was a much larger island, from which the deer had probably swam over in the night. We had no dogs, but the key was so small that we felt confident of being able to kill one, if they still remained. William brought up our Sharpe’s rifles, and with the Doctor went round in the boat to the lower end of the island, which we supposed not to be more than a quarter of a mile distant, to drive up whatever game they might find; while the Major and myself placed ourselves in ambush near the upper end, at a narrow place where the sea occasionally washed entirely across, and where there were but a few bushes or obstructions in the way.
It was twelve when the Doctor started. Quarter past and half past twelve came and no signs ofthe game or Doctor. The enthusiasm with which I had entered Into the project began sensibly to abate. Stretched at full length upon the burning sand, the reflection from which was of almost blinding intensity, with a vertical sun upon the back and a wretched apology for shelter in a miserable prickly cactus, with the gun-barrel long since too hot to be held in the naked hand, I turned and twisted uneasily. " How long must this arenation continue ? ” thought I. The Major was posted behind me. I turned anxiously and looked at him. From his cool and placid expression of countenance, one would have supposed that grateful shades surrounded him, and cooling waters ran prattling at his feet. He had been an old sportsman on the Rio Grande. I was in despair. My throat was parched, and my face almost blistered by the heat. I closed my eyes for relief to the straining sight. Delicious thoughts of plashing fountains and shady groves long wandered through my feverish brain. How I envied the Major! At last I opened my eyes again upon the dreary scene ; and there, twenty feet before me, was the first wild doe that I had ever seen, standing with head erect, nostrils dilated, and mild large eyes fixed intently upon me. What could I do ? She might have been shot with a pop-gun, yet the slightest movement would betray me ; and, with the awkwardness of a novice, I was lying on my gun. Hoping to be mistaken for a log, with a most amiable expression of countenance I lay in an agony of expectation, waiting for an opportunity to use my gun. Vain illusion ! Tossing her head significantly, she turned, and bounded into the wood, not lightly as she came, but with startled leaps, crashing the brush. In a moment the nervous hand of the Major was upon me.
“ Why did n't you fire ? ” said he, almost sternly.
“How could I fire with the gun under me ? ”
“ I could have bored her through and through, but on your account I would n’t,” said he, and he walked away. Not the least self-denial of the trip was that ; I knew what it cost him. The deer was not destined to escape, however, for the Doctor and William both heard her coming, and both wounded her; the former, who was a capital shot, mortally. William brought her in upon his shoulders, but the sight had little pleasure fer me. An opportunity was lost forever.
Though we had already come a considerable distance on our return, we soon re-embarked, for we hoped to reach the fort that night. A long sunny afternoon wore pleasantly away, and at sunset, as nearly as we could judge, we were not more than a dozen miles from the fort. The wind, however, which had blown strongly all the afternoon, seemed to have exhausted itself, and now came but fitfully and at long intervals, and at times we drifted helplessly with the tide. The sun, not lingering as in Northern latitudes, had sunk into the waters round and burning red, and clouds had for some time darkened in the horizon. Though the ocean had become smooth, almost ominously so, an uneasy feeling pervaded all of us. We were drifting in the darkness we knew not whither, our cannon-shot, as we had found long before, offering but the feeblest resistance. An elemental change of some character seemed presaged by the peculiar feeling of the atmosphere, which seemed stifled and heavy. Should a storm arise, we were in imminent danger, not only of being overturned or dashed on the rocks, but of being blown off the reef into the open Gulf, where the prospect of suffering, if not perishing from thirst, in the absence of succor from any passing vessel was serious, our supply of fresh water being already nearly exhausted. Our folly in trusting to so wretched a substitute for an anchor was now painfully apparent.
An hour or two passed in this way, though the dreary suspense seemed far longer, when a faint diffused flash on the horizon, and a dull, heavy roar, distinct and low in the still night air, was borne to our ears. It was the eveninggun from Fort Taylor, and we almost thought we could distinguish the rollicking tattoo that followed, beaten by the vigorous hands of the dusky garrison.
The wind had now died entirely away. The sails hardly flapped on the masts in the occasional, almost imperceptible, swaying of the vessel. The sea was still, and we were alone upon the water at night; the booming of the gun seemed the last farewell from the land, — an official notice that we were turned over to the protecting care of the darkness and the ocean. We lay in various positions, indulging the thoughts and imaginings which the situation could hardly fail to inspire. The air was deliciously gentle, almost caressing in its softness ; yet not free from a certain almost indefinable feeling of oppression ; and the sea, what a glory was there ! I have been stationed many months in Florida, and during nearly all the time at different places on the coast and within sight of the water, and I have made many excursions and voyages over it; but I never had seen it before, nor have I seen it since, present any such appearance as it wore at that time. Black as midnight to the view when undisturbed, no sooner was its surface broken than it glowed and blazed in phosphorescent splendor; not the dull, pale glitter of our Northern waters, but a warm, concentrated fire of molten gold, which fringed and bordered every ripple or disturbance of its surface by the sluggish motion of the vessel, and which, when agitated in masses, cast a perceptible light, very strange and startling, into the face of the beholder. Stranger still, as though for once the mantle of night had in vain fallen on the ocean, and all its secrets were about to be revealed, there could be traced with distinctness beneath the surface the motions of the fish, as they lazily moved to and fro, by their attendant subaqueous track of fire. We drifted on an ocean of darkness, veined all about us with tracks of living light. Save for the blackness of the waters, which increased tenfold the glorious contrast, the magnificent imagery of Scripture was verified: the “ sea of glass mingled with fire” was spread out before us. So strong was the fascination, not altogether unmingled with a more solemn feeling, at this wonderful scene, that we remained almost in silence. Darkness was overhead, and the fires of the firmament seemed strangely blazing at our feet.
The quick, religious imagination of his race seemed excited in William, and he appeared to feel a kind of awe as he gazed, apparently unable to speak or move, or even to turn away his eyes.
How long this continued we hardly knew, though no one thought of sleeping. Finally the moon emerged, wan and drenched, out of the ocean, — melancholy as the old moon always is shrunk from her just proportions, and now feebly shining with diminished light through the clouds. Her rays rather deepened than lessened the spell which the scene had cast upon us.
But when, an hour after, the wind rose, and our little bark, catching the breeze, began to move gayly forward with a wholesome rustle at her bows, my spirits rose with it, and it mattered little to me, except as a pleasure, how fiamed the rustling waters as we advanced, or how imperial a splendor followed in our wake. And when, as we drew off the reef, the long smooth rollers, still dark, except where they met with an obstruction, rushed gloriously through the tangled roots and interlaced stems of the mangrove keys, which we passed in succession, carrying torches of fire far into their cavernous recesses, it was with a wholesome exhilaration of spirits that my vision followed them.
The last that we saw of this mighty display was the sea upon a distant beach breaking in billows of flame, and flooding like liquid lightning far up the shore.1
- So marked was this phosphorescent display, that an officer stationed at the fort afterwards told me that on the same night he sharply rebuked a sentry for allowing lights to burn beneath the bridge connecting the fort with the town; supposing, upon his midnight inspection, that persons were there fishing. Vet there was no wind, only the gentle motion of the tide against the piles. Had there been a storm, I can imagine no sight of more unearthly beauty than would probably have been presented.↩